LOS ANGELES, Calif. — It was the last phone call anyone inside the USC basketball program expected Monday morning after the team won its first road game since March 5, 2011, effectively snapping a 14-game road losing streak.
“I think for the most part the whole team was excited about that win,” senior guard Jio Fontan said Monday afternoon. “It was like the first time in awhile where we felt like everything was clicking.”
The click would be short lived as the feel-good moment drastically shifted back to the reality that is the business of college basketball. Within thirty-minutes of receiving the call for a meeting the team learned head coach Kevin O’Neill was relieved of his coaching duties by athletic director Pat Haden.
“It was shocking,” senior forward Eric Wise said during Monday’s press conference in front of a room uncharacteristically full of media.
O’Neill led the Trojans to a 7-10 season, including a 2-2 record in Pac-12 Conference play before being let go. USC stammered through its non-conference schedule to start its season, at one point dropping five straight games.
It was widely known this season would be an uphill battle for the fourth year head coach to retain his job since the team finished 6-26 in 2011 after an injury plagued season.
“It was hard for me to evaluate him as a head coach until this year when he had enough players and veterans to compete,” Haden said in statement released by the school. “As the season progressed, it became evident to me that we needed new leadership in our men’s basketball program.”
Haden appointed 12th year USC assistant coach Bob Cantu to the interim head coaching position. Though this will serve as Cantu’s first experience leading the program, these situations have nearly become a routine throughout his tenure. Cantu has now seen four head coaches leave the program including Henry Bibby, Jim Saia, Tim Floyd, and now O’Neill.
“Unfortunately you see this in this business,” he said Monday. “There are changes at all levels.”
Cantu admitted the staff knew they would have a challenging year after the disappointment felt in 2011. “I think we felt that we were headed in the right direction and Kevin could get an extension,” he said. “Unfortunately this just happened as a surprise.”
Though Fontan said the team needs to now focus on moving forward through the remainder of its games, he did take a moment earlier in the day to call O’Neill. “My relationship is a lot deeper than basketball with KO,” he explained. “He taught me a lot about what it takes to be a pro at the next level, about going through life’s changes and you have to fight through (adversity).”
Lasting lessons learned by the redshirt senior from his former coach that will now come to use as he looks to lead his battle-tested team to wins this weekend when the Trojans host No. 21 Oregon (14-2, 3-0) and Oregon State (10-6, 0-3).